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Byzantine art



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masolino da panicale

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master of sain tfrancis

master of the osservanza

matteo di giovanni

memmo di filippuccio

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piero della francesca

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Sassetta, St Thomas Inspired by the Dove of the Holy Ghost, 1423, Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest


Travel guide for Tuscany

Sassetta | The Lana Altarpiece (Altar of the Eucharist)


A wind of change and a more complex type of culture entered Sienese painting with the Lana Altarpiece, the polyptych done in 1423-26 for the "Arte della Lana" (the Wool Guild). The artist was Stefano di Giovanni, later to be known as Sassetta.
All that remains of this altarpiece consists of a side-panel in the collection of the Monte dei Paschi Bank in Siena, the predella now distributed among the Pinacoteca (nos. 166 and 167), the Budapest Museum, the Vatican Pinacoteca, the Bowes Museum at Bamard Castle and the Museum of Melbourne, along with a few other minor but significant fragments.
Sassetta's Wool Guild altarpiece was an ingeniously movable yet highly elaborate gothic triptych that the guild used for its outdoor celebration of the Feast of Corpus Domini and otherwise stored in its palace.

Stefano di Giovanni, known as il Sassetta, (1392 – 1450 or 1451) was born in Siena, although there is also an hypothesis that he was born in Cortona. However, the first historical record of him was in Siena in 1423. Di Giovanni was probably the apprentice of Paolo di Giovanni Fei although it is also thought that he may have studied under Benedetto di Bindo. He painted in the semi-archaic Sienese School style of painting. Francesco di Giorgio e di Lorenzo, better known as Vecchietta, is said to have been his apprentice.[1]

The date and place of his birth are uncertain. He seems to have been trained in Siena, and the force of the Sienese tradition is evident in the vivid colours and elegant use of line in the surviving panels of his first commissioned work, an altarpiece for the Arte della Lana in Siena (1423–26). His interest in the work of the first generation of Florentine Renaissance painters is reflected in the coherent spatial relationships of the monumental altarpiece of the “Madonna of the Snow,” painted for Siena Cathedral in 1430–32. From this point on, under Gothic influence, Sassetta’s style assumes an increasingly decorative character, manifest initially.


Sassetta, Death of the Heretic on the Bonfire

Sassetta, Death of the Heretic on the Bonfire; 1423, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
The picture shows one of the predella paintings of the Altar of the Eucharist.

The Lana Altarpiece, the first known work by Sassetta, was commissioned by the "Arte della Lana", i.e. the woolmerchants' guild for the church of the Carmelite Order in Siena in 1423. It was made for the feast of Corpus Christi. It upheld the doctrine of transubstantiation according to which bread and wine is changed at the Eucharist into the actual Body and Blood of Christ.

The triptych was dissembled in 1777, and the central panel is lost, but it is possible to reconstruct its original arrangement from earlier descriptions. According to these, the central panel represented the Holy Sacrament in an ostensory adored by a number of angels around it. Above this there was the scene of the Coronation of the Virgin, and on the sides Abbot S. Anthony and S. Thomas Aquinas were depicted. Above these the scene of the Annunciation was represented in two separate pictures.

On the predella underneath the main panel, seven small panels showed the following scenes: 1-2. Two scenes from the life of S. Anthony, one of them is about his temptation (Siena, Pinacoteca); 3. Execution of an Heretic on the Bonfire (Melbourne Museum); 4. The Last Supper (Siena, Pinacoteca); 5. The Miracle of the Holy Sacrament (Barnard Castle, Bowes Museum); 6. S. Thomas Aquinas in Prayer in front of the Altar of the Virgin (Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts); 7. S. Thomas Aquinas in Prayer in front of the Crucifix (Vatican, Pinacoteca).

Further to the above mentioned ones we know eight panels from the external pillars that represented the Four Doctors of the Church: S. Jerome, Gregory, Ambrose, Augustine as well as the four patron saints of Siena: S. Ansanus, Victor, Savinus and Crescentius. Two small panels from the pinnacles with the figures of the Prophets Elias and Eliseus still exist in the Sienese Picture Gallery. Under the central panel the following inscription was visible: "Hinc opus omne Patres Stefanus construxit ad aras Senensis Johannis agens citra lapsus adultos". The interpretation of this distych is much debated.

The iconographic programme of the altar was probably composed by the Carmelite monks. That is why the two prophets, Elias and Eliseus, the "Dux et Pater" and the Pater of the Carmelites were represented on the altar, and in Carmelite habit. We can also see a few Carmelite monks in the pictures of the predella.

St Thomas Inspired by the Dove of the Holy Ghost
, 1423, Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest
Sassetta, Saint Antony Beaten by the Devils,

Sassetta, Saint Antony Beaten by the Devils, Siena, Pinacoteca Nazionale


In the St. Antony Beaten by Devils, one of the panels of the predella, the depth and articulation of the landscape is for the flrst time seen against a blue sky sueaked witb white douds, instead of the customary gold background. In the Adoration of the Magi in the Chigi Saracini Collection in Siena, a fragment of a larger composition which included the Journey of the Magi in the Griggs Collection in New York, we clearly see that Sassetta was greatly attracted by the art of Gentile da Fabriano, who spent some time in Siena in 1425 and 1426. But it is with the great altar-frontal of the Madonna della Neve, painted in 1430-32 for the Cathedral of Siena and now in the Contini Bonacossi Foundation (Uffizi), that he clearly shows how far he adhered to the "great Florentine concepts of form in perspective" (Graziani), even if these do not have much effect on the composition, but. rather tend to stimulate occasional brilliant innovations.





Death of the Heretic on the Bonfire
Panel, 24,6 x 38,7 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne


The Last Supper
Panel, 24 x 38 cm
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena


Miracle of the Eucharist
Panel, 24 x 38 cm
Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle


The Vision of Saint Thomas Aquinas

The Madonna and Child Surrounded by Six Angels, St. Anthony of Padua, St. John the Evangelist
Commissioned from Sassetta in 1437 by the monks of the monastery of San Francesco at Borgo Sansepolcro in Tuscany, and installed in their church over the tomb of the Blessed Ranieri Rasini (d. 1304) in 1444, this double-sided altarpiece originally comprised sixty panels. Half of these have survived and are to be found in private collections and museums in Settignano (near Florence), London, New York, Berlin, Chantilly, Cleveland, Moscow, Detroit, and elsewhere.

In memoriam

In memory of the Blessed Ranieri Rasini, a native of their town, the monks of the monastery of San Francesco at Borgo Sansepolcro decided in 1437 to call on Sassetta, the most highly reputed of Siena's artists, to create a multipanel, double-sided altar piece, or polyptych. Painted in 1437-44, the work was made up of sixty panels, thirty of which have been identified in public and private collections around the world. The Madonna and Child Surrounded by Six Angels occupied the central panel, facing the faithful in the nave and flanked by images of four saints: John the Evangelist, Anthony of Padua, the Blessed Ranieri Rasini, and John the Baptist. Below them the predella comprised scenes from the Passion. On the back of the polyptych an image of St. Francis, the monks' patron saint, was set amid eight episodes from his life. The predella, two scenes of which are in the Louvre, recounts the life of Rasini.

Engaging naïveté

From the great Sienese masters of the 14th century Sassetta inherited a marked taste for gold and silver, vivid colors - lapis lazuli in particular - and finely worked frames. At the same time, however, he was abreast of the new approaches to perspective being explored in Florence in 1410-20, and here he creates a feeling of depth for the Virgin's throne and the multicolored floor, and gives his figures real volume. The engaging naïveté of the figures - the affectionate gaze of the Virgin, the naturalness of the Child's pose, and the smiles of the angels - alleviates the solemnity of the scene.


Seated on a throne, the Virgin wears a voluminous blue cloak that also covers her head. She is given a starred halo, for she is being compared to the morning star, herald of the sun. Upright on his mother's knee, the Infant Jesus is wearing a transparent veil. Here Sassetta depicts the Madonna and Child in Paradise, the hedge of roses to each side suggesting the traditional image of Eden as a luxuriant garden. Around them, angels sing to the glory of God. In the foreground to the left, we see a hurdy-gurdy, to the right a lute; behind them are a harp on the left and a psaltery on the right. In the upper part of the picture, two angels hold a jewel-encrusted crown over the Virgin, Mother of God and Queen of Heaven.

The Last Supper, 1423, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena
The life of St Thomas Aquinas was not full of spectacular miracles, and so the painter of this panel had to illustrate a subject that was not thankful from an artistic point of view. He showed the Saint deeply absorbed in prayer. God the Father, appearing in a circle of angels, send the Holy Ghost to him, in the shape of a dove. The Saint is kneeling almost gracefully, though completetly without movement, and around him there is the view of a spacious church interior, and the library and courtyard of a monastery. The sequence of spatial layers is used in such a way as to add to the animation of the composition.  

St Thomas Inspired by the Dove of the Holy Ghost
, 1423, Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest
St Thomas Before the Cross, 1423, Pinacoteca, Vatican
The picture shows one of the known eight panels from the external pillars of the Altar of the Eucharist by Sassetta. The panels represent the Four Doctors of the Church: S. Jerome, Gregory, Ambrose, Augustine as well as the four patron saints of Siena: S. Ansanus, Victor, Savinus and Crescentius.  
St Jerome (detail), 1423, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena

[1] Sassetta (ca. 1400-1450), the greatest painter of the Sienese school in the 15th century, is noted for the gentle piety of his art.
The place and date of birth of Stefano di Giovanni, known as Sassetta are unknown. He may have been born in Cortona, the home of his father, Giovanni di Consolo. A baptismal record preserved in Siena dated Dec. 31, 1392, for one Stefano di Giovanni is widely accepted as evidence that he was born in Siena that year. Some scholars, however, would suggest a birth date not before 1400 on the basis of Sassetta's earliest dated work of 1423.
Sassetta's style was wholly Sienese in character, suggesting that he was trained in the shop of some Sienese master. Whether or not that master was Paolo di Giovanni Fei, as suggested by some critics, is unknown. In 1440 Sassetta married Gabriella di Buccio di Biancardo. The eldest of their three children was the sculptor Giovanni di Stefano. Sassetta died in April 1450, after contracting pneumonia the previous month while frescoing the Porta Romana, Siena.
On July 1, 1423, the wool guild (Arte della Lana) commissioned an altarpiece (now disassembled) from Sassetta for its chapel next to the church of S. Pellegrino, Siena. From 1426 to 1431 he was associated with the Cathedral Works, Siena. Among the documents from this period are records of payment dated December 1427 for a drawing of the baptismal font "in the shape that it ought to take." This suggests that he may have collaborated with Jacopo della Quercia, the sculptor who built the font.
On March 25, 1430, Sassetta was commissioned to paint an altarpiece of the Madonna with Saints with the legend of the founding of S. Maria Maggiore, Rome, in the predella. The Madonna of the Snow, as it is called, was finished by mid-October 1432. His style in this work betrays the influence of Masaccio, especially in the broad modeling of the Virgin and Child and in the arrangement of figures in the predella. Little is known of Sassetta's activities between 1433 and 1436, though this is the period when he probably painted the Crucifixion for S. Martino (of which fragments remain) and the altarpiece for S. Domenico, Cortona.
The altarpiece of the Madonna with Saints Jerome and Ambrose, dated 1436, in the Church of the Osservanza, Siena, formerly attributed to Sassetta, is now generally attributed to another artist, the so-called Osservanza Master. Some critics would extend the oeuvre of the Osservanza Master to include the Birth of the Virgin in Asciano and the group of panels with the life of St. Anthony Abbot from an altarpiece dedicated to the saint. These panels still have advocates who attribute them to Sassetta.

Two small panels, the Journey of the Magi and the Adoration of the Magi, were probably once part of a single composition. The most important extant later work by Sassetta is the altarpiece (now dismembered) commissioned on Sept. 5, 1437, and completed by June 5, 1441, for the church of S. Francesco, Borgo San Sepolcro. His style in these panels is somewhat flatter and more decorative than in the Madonna of the Snow. When Sassetta died, he left at least two major works unfinished: the fresco decoration of the Porta Romana, Siena, and the Assumption of the Virgin.



Art in Tuscany | Sassetta
Art in Tuscany | Sassetta | San Sepolcro Altarpiece

Koichi Toyama, Light and Shadow in Sassetta: The Stigmatization of Saint Francis and the Sermons of Bernardino da Siena
How Maru and Bernard Berenson rediscovered Sassetta's Altarpiece


Travel guide for tuscany | Art, history, hidden secrets and holiday houses in Tuscany | Podere Santa Pia


Podere Santa Pia
Podere Santa Pia, garden view in April


Siena, Palazzo Publico
Siena, Duomo
Val d'Orcia


Century-old olive trees, between Podere Santa Pia and Cinigiano
Sunsets in Tuscany



Podere Santa Pia is set in an extremely panoramic spot, dominating over the valleys, the countryside, up to the Tyrrhenian coast


This page uses material from the Wikipedia article Adoration of the Magi, published under the GNU Free Documentation License.